The Great War

I saw Peter Jackson’s WWI movie They Shall Not Grow Old where they restored clips frame-by-frame and colorized them, and then combined those visuals with audio recordings of soldiers talking about the war, and on the surface it was an interesting project that really brought home how young everyone was and how brutal the war was. Being limited to audio interviews meant it had no historical context besides what someone told an interviewer 50-60 years ago. Thanks to a 30 minute short that played after the film, Jackson shared stories of how the movie was made and assembled and after getting more context and information, I felt ultimately it was kind of a big dumb vanity project for Peter Jackson that fell short of the mark.

He set out to make a movie for non-historians to watch, made by non-historians, and that’s an interesting concept and I get that making a big Ken Burns style exhaustive historical film would add a ton of work and become a different beast. But ultimately through the 30min follow-up extras, Jackson makes it clear he chose to cut out any archive film about the navy ships and battles, cut the entire story of the first airplanes in war, and chopped out any war front footage besides that from the fields of Belgium and France.

The moment that crystallized it for me was when he showed his own research photos he took during the colorization process, including a scene we saw of soldiers looking scared in a gully below a field, and he located the exact field and the exact gully and took a photo from the same angle and casually mentioned the look of horror on the young soldiers’ faces was due to them getting ready to storm the field above them which was filled with German soldiers in camp, and how almost certainly 90% of people in that piece of film died about 30 minutes after it was captured.

That’s quite a revelation to pick up in a small aside, and reframed the bit of film and explained so much that was lost in how the movie was ultimately made. By adding no historical context, the segment of scared soldiers just felt like an odd moment among hundreds of other clips, notable only for the frightened looks on a couple faces that are unexplained and entirely left to the viewer.

We should never forget the horrors of war. If we ignore the lessons we are doomed to repeat them, and I think the concept of the project was a wonderful one, but the execution fell far short of the mark. It didn’t have to be an exhaustive Ken Burns style project that takes 5-10 years to complete, but on the other hand, 90 minutes of daily life footage combined with soldier stories isn’t quite enough to tell a full picture of what took place.

I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be a great piece of history, but ultimately, it was not.